'You will have to drag audiences back': Gianluca Chakra on the challenges facing cinema in a post-coronavirus world

The Middle East movie distributor says studios will have to bring something special to the table to compete with streaming platforms

Provided photo  of Gianluca Chakra,  Front Row Filmed Entertainment GM  Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment

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As much of the world approaches or enters a second month of quarantine, the bad news for the film industry continues to pour in. With most cinemas still closed worldwide, analysts on Wall Street are saying that the world’s biggest theatre chain, AMC, may be about to file for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Cinemark, the world’s third largest operator, furloughed half of its corporate staff and laid off a further 17,500 workers this week.

The news comes soon after the UK’s Cineworld, the second largest global operator, issued a warning in its annual report that it could run out of cash by the summer if cinemas remain closed.

Film and TV production is at a standstill worldwide, while on the festival circuit, Cannes has become the latest, and biggest, film festival to concede that it will be unable to conduct the event in its usual format this year. Until this week, the festival had defiantly clung on to the hope of holding its event in June or July, following the postponement from May. However, organisers have finally admitted defeat, saying they will try and keep the festival alive "in some form". Cannes seems certain to be a much smaller and probably purely industry-focused event this year. Producers of big movies that were rumoured to be premiering at the event – such as Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch and Pixar's Soul – will probably turn their attention to Toronto and Venice film festivals for a possible September premiere, and a later cinema release, instead.

Soul. Pixar / Disney
'Soul' by Pixar was also expected to screen at the now-cancelled Cannes festival and will potentially look at festivals such as Toronto and Venice for their premiere. Pixar / Disney

This does not affect the festival sector in isolation, of course. A Cannes premiere is a huge opportunity to build a buzz for films that are released late in the year, whether blockbusters such as Soul or breakout foreign films such as Parasite, which went on to sweep this year's Oscars after its Palme d'Or win last year.

Cannes Film Market is also one of the biggest gatherings of international sales agents and distributors picking up new movies at various stages of production for its next year’s programme. Cannes has not ruled out an online version of its market but, in the current situation, even that will not entirely solve what could become a major problem for cinemas once they do eventually open up – that is a worrying lack of new films.

Cannes regular Gianluca Chakra's independent distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment, which brought hits such as Birdman and Farenheit 9/11 to cinemas in the Middle East, acquires regional releases for its cinema and video-on-demand schedules at the annual festival. Chakra says: "As a buyer, do you really want to commit to a project now that is going to be shot who knows when? You have a lot of films that were supposed to start shooting in June or July, now it's probably September at the earliest. 

“Then there are all the ones that have started shooting and had to halt production, and now we do not know when these are going to be delivered, if the cast will still be available to restart, and so on. So even if we move the market online, buyers would want films that are already in post-production, but if films at that stage are not already sold, there is a high chance they are simply not very good.”

The challenge will be not only of a lack of new films, with little or no festival hype, but also that of an audience that might be fearful of returning to crowded places in the early weeks after social distancing ends. Governments will probably prevent cinemas from filling to capacity in the early days, too.

Additionally, as every day under the stay-at-home directive passes, potential audiences are becoming increasingly accustomed to watching films via the many streaming options available.

Chakra is perhaps uniquely placed, with a foot each in the cinema and streaming camps. Front Row is first and foremost a theatre distributor, but for several years has also acted as content aggregator for the regional iTunes video-on-­demand platform. Sister company Yalla Yalla, meanwhile, produces films for distribution via cinemas and online platforms, including the Armando Iannucci-executive produced wrestling comedy Sumo, which is one of the glut of films with a cancelled June / July shooting schedule.

It has to be something really worth it for people to go back to the cinema, not just come and watch it on IMAX. You will have to really drag them back, and it's going to take a lot of effort

Chakra is aware of the challenge cinemas will face in bringing audiences back once the pandemic ends, or the potential long-term repercussions for the whole industry. “Coronavirus has happened, and it is going to speed up that shift between theatrical and digital. People are discovering more and more through Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple TV that they can access all these films for, like, $7 [Dh25] or whatever, versus: ‘I’m gonna go and spend $50, between the ticket and the concession.’ Of course they will say: ‘Let us all watch a film on Netflix.’

“It has to be something really worth it for people to go back to the cinema, not just come and watch it on IMAX. You will have to really drag them back, and it’s going to take a lot of effort.”

Bill Murray in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of  Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Wes Anderson's 'The French Dispatch' was scheduled to release in July and expected to be included at the now-cancelled 2020 Cannes Film Festival. Twentieth Century Fox

For a man with a decades-­long history in traditional cinema prior to the arrival of streaming, Chakra's practical take on the situation is refreshing. He recently set a further precedent when Front Row announced it will move its new cinema releases direct to VOD amid the Covid-19 social restrictions, beginning with the Marcel Marceau biopic Resistance, starring Jesse Eisenberg. 

“We have been building video on demand into our business model for a long time now, and we have been pushing for a shorter theatrical window for a while. When the coronavirus happened, we panicked, but at the same time we were kind of ready, so we just said: ‘OK, let’s go straight to video on demand.’”

There is another change the industry veteran sees coming to the market. He predicts that the current situation could lead to the big studios in the US, which is the world’s biggest cinema market, to buy up struggling chains to screen their own films, thereby denying them to rival chains. While this is currently not possible because of antitrust laws that prevent major studios from also owning cinema chains, changes to the laws were already in discussion pre-pandemic and will likely become inevitable with the economic impact of the virus. 

“They would run their own cinemas like a Disney or Warner Theme Park. Where cinemas sit outside their monopoly, such as here in the UAE, they could turn around and say: ‘You know we currently take 50 per cent of your box office? Well let’s make it 75 or 80 per cent’ – and cinemas would have to pay it because they would be totally reliant on their films,” says Chakra.

It’s a dystopian view of the future, although Chakra also has a positive outlook. “The answer to that would be local production. That is the only way you can retaliate.

“That is the way the world is going because for new platforms, the only way they can increase their subscriptions is with local content,” he says. “Just look at local production in markets after Netflix’s entry. Italy’s production went up, France’s production went up. Open up Netflix today and it’s totally full of Spanish stuff.

“The big studios can never compete there, and for both producers and smaller cinemas and chains, that is going to be where the future lies.”